Community honors Straus with Dia de los Muertos

by Brook O'Meara-Sayen / Beacon Correspondent • November 5, 2014

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Students, faculty, and artists gathered in the Iwasaki Library Halloween morning to decorate an altar honoring Jocelyn Amelia Straus, a freshman student who died last month.

Three artists from Mexico and about 20 students and faculty joined together to decorate the space with tissue paper flowers, photos of Straus and food offerings of Diet Coke, fruit, and sparkling cider. Gregory Payne, the event organizer and interim chair of the department of communication studies, said the memorial was meant to remember Straus’ life and her time at Emerson.

Straus took her own life in her Colonial Building dorm room in October. 

Freshman Laura Londono said she sat next to Straus in class and had mutual friends, and she attended the event in an attempt to get closure. 

“It’s very hard to do this because not everyone is ready to celebrate who she was, and a lot of people are still mourning her death, but it’s very nice to see it all put together,” said Londono, a political communication major and a member of Payne’s class. “I know she would be very pleased to see that a lot of people are remembering who she was and celebrating her life in general.”

Friday’s memorial was a celebration of the Day of the Dead organized by Payne’s Argument and Advocacy class. The class had originally intended to dedicate the event to Robin Williams, the acclaimed actor who died in August, according to Payne, but decided to refocus after Straus’ passing. 

“I think this is a beautiful way that we can all come together and remember her in a way that supersedes all other traditions,” said Isabella Saporito, a freshman writing, literature, and publishing major in Payne’s class. 

Día de los Muertos is celebrated on Oct. 31, Nov. 1, and Nov. 2 in Mexico, and while it is dedicated to remembering the dead, it is intended to be positive celebration rather than a time of mourning, according to visiting visual artist Claudia Rodriguez of Tijuana, Mexico.

“Day of the Dead is the oldest Mexican tradition; it’s since the Aztec and Mayan times,” she said. “Aztecs and Mayans believed that death is just a part of life. It’s just one step, it’s not really the end. This is what this day is about. It’s about commemorating life.”

Payne said he talked to Straus’ father, who gave him permission to hold the memorial.

“It’s a diverse and interdisciplinary way of celebrating someone we wish was with us, but is not,” said Payne. “It’s celebrating the time that she was with us, and the ways that she touched us, and it’s probably different and a bit more upbeat than the American perspective which is oftentimes very, very sad.”

As part of Baja to Boston, a public diplomacy project led by Payne, Emerson has invited artists from Mexico to campus for the past four years. This year, Payne said the artists suggested they center the visit around the Day of the Dead. 

Rodriguez said she and the other artists were excited to share this tradition with the Emerson community and help honor Straus. 

Students also crafted a Mayan cross, which Rodriguez said is supposed to help guide the dead back to the world of the living. They decorated it with with paper marigolds called cempasúchil, which means “flowers of the dead.” 

“This whole altar is for her to find her way home, for this one night.” she said. “So she can have a feast and celebrate with her loved ones that she left behind. It’s like a path—it’s going to bring her in here, and then back. Everything is for her.”